- The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball at the ’68 Racial Divide
Steve Marantz navigates racial turmoil and class struggle at a tumultuous time in United States history in The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball at the ’68 Racial Divide. Concentrating on Omaha, Nebraska, in 1968, Marantz illustrates social and racial divisiveness through his research on the Omaha Central’s men’s basketball team and presidential candidate George C. Wallace. Marantz formulates his narrative as a moment in history when in opposition to Wallace’s segregationist views the “black power movement took roots in sports” (p. 43). Marantz proposes that members of the “Rhythm Boys,” the nickname given to Omaha Central High School’s male basketball team, and in particular Dwaine Dillard, represented the continued struggle for African Americans through their personal relationships, athletic ability, and academic endeavors.
According to Marantz, Omaha Central’s leadership maintained a legacy of high academic achievement and discipline amongst its student body. Under the guidance of J. Arthur Nelson, Omaha Central’s reputation prior to 1968 sustained the notion that rigor and strict guidelines led to academic and personal success. However, Marantz reveals Nelson’s formidable rules were unable to shelter Omaha Central from the influences of social and political uprisings in 1968. Focusing heavily on the preeminent high school basketball player in the state of Nebraska, Dwaine Dillard, Marantz depicts the duality of race where the white Nelson “fled the cultural zeitgeist,” and the African-American “Dillard rushed to meet it” (p. 17). Marantz represents Dillard as an athletic anomaly whose personal strife fostered an inner turmoil, which channeled his energies and views on and off the basketball court.
Marantz’s narrative of Dillard conforms to a common depiction of young African-American males during the 1960s. Dillard lacked a consistent paternal influence in his youth and developed physically for basketball early in his adolescence, but his academics lagged. Dillard’s poor academics is something overlooked by administrators at Omaha [End Page 189] Central, fostering an important theme for Marantz. Marantz connects the failure to nurture academics of African-American athletes at Omaha Central with the dissent of Harry Edwards in 1968. Marantz represents Edwards as an advocate against the marginalization of black athletes and the pressure to “maintain athletic eligibility with light course loads that left them short of graduation—and unprepared for nonsports careers—when their eligibility ran out” (p. 44). Moreover, Marantz informs readers of the interconnectedness of athletics and national politics in the late 1960s with the arrival of Wallace and the Nebraska state high school basketball tournament.
In 1968 Wallace arrived in Omaha to promote his segregationist political platform and ensure a third party candidacy in the presidential primary. Marantz portrays Wallace’s arrival as the impetus for racial tension and turmoil within Omaha. Using a variety of newspaper accounts and individuals’ recollections, Marantz navigates readers through a series of upheavals, police interventions, riots, separatist outcomes, and Dillard’s publicized arrest. Marantz uses this moment as a turning point in the public’s attitude toward and attitude exuding from the “Rhythm Boys.” Marantz, a former student at Omaha Central, conducted personal interviews, dissected classmates’ diaries, reviewed high school yearbooks, and surveyed newspaper accounts to formulate the background necessary for describing the erosion of racial harmony between students and administrators at Omaha Central prior to Wallace’s arrival.
The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central is a microcosm of the stress racism placed upon America’s youth in the 1960s. Utilizing the engaging personalities and actions of Omaha Central’s “Rhythm Boys,” Marantz provides insight into the result of tumultuously charged decisions, highlighted by Dillard’s arrest and lifelong struggles. More so than other members of the Omaha Central men’s basketball team, Dillard became a symbol. Marantz used the writing of columnist Wally Provost to describe Dillard as “all that they [white society] feared from lawlessness” while to the African-American community he was an ‘idolized rebel” (p. 216). Although at times...